Classic Rock Review

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Shakey: Neil Young’s Biography by Jimmy McDonough (2003)


Review As revealed in this new biography, Neil Young is a twentieth century original, a man who rose from obscurity based on nothing less than serendipitous happenstance, a remarkable talent as a musician, singer, and songwriter, and his enduring will to be true to his own inner voice. His story is nothing less than remarkable, given the quicksilver nature of fame and fortune in the rock and roll music business, for Young has truly done it all his way.

He has a fabled lack of concern for consequences, for example, and has changed course in the midst of tours, recording sessions, and life a number of times, and allowed terrific carnage to concur in the wake of his leaving. As fellow Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young group member commented, “Neil is not what one would call a `team player'”. No, indeed he isn’t. And the wreckage he sometimes leaves behind him has been the stuff of legend.

Yet in the midst of all of this carnage and destruction, he has been fabulously successful, and in this penetrating and somewhat discursive biography written by a veteran rock and roll journalist allowed unique access to Young, the artist is revealed to be an iconoclastic, idealistic, and impetuous soul, one in constant search for unique opportunities for his own personal artistic expression. He tends to deal in extremes, not only in his music, but in his wider personal life as well, and has, for example, bought old wrecked 1950 something Cadillacs for $400, only to spend tens of thousands of dollars to have them scrupulously, painfully, and quite expensively restored to pristine condition.

And he brings this aspect of doing things to the ultimate degree to almost every aspect of his life. Yet where it shows most clearly and most fatefully is in his recording output, which is both prodigious and varied. He has jettisoned friends and colleagues in search of something creatively different, has dared to off on obscure tangents, and has returned to writing, playing and singing that is artistically fresh, honest, and approachable.

Young’s life reflects this devotion to introspective aloofness, and although he is happily married with children, he has left a lot of emotional detritus on the floor in the area of his life as well. Colleagues and peers such as Paul Simon and James Taylor speak of him in glowing and affectionate terms, and even Bob Dylan is an outspoken admirer of Neil’s creative abilities. Yet all of his friends, band members, and associates recognize that the singular degree to which Neil Young has lived his life is in many ways cruelly and unnecessarily selfish, as though all that mattered to Young was his pursuit of his artistic expression and his idiosyncratic interests.

In fact, Young admits as much, and yet is unapologetic. So while one can easily admire the singular creative force he embodies, one is leery of anyone so inner-directed and so single-mindedly devoted to his pursuit of art that he sometimes seems to carelessly disregard all those humans who so meaningfully contribute to his ability to do what he does. Yet he is also sometimes described as generous, thoughtful, and exteremely loyal to friends and aquaintenances.

Thus, there is no question but that Neil Young is an enigmatic, complicated, and often tortured individual, and he certainly is a uniquely talented and gifted artist, musician, and singer. His life has been neither easy nor uncomplicated, and one has to admire the energy and determination he brings to his craft, his continued work, and to his life. He is a searcher, someone who, after all this success and recognition, seems still devoted to the pursuit of what Mark Twain referred to as `the territory ahead’, out where few other humans have tread, and where Neil may get to breathe in the intoxicating aromas of original art. This is a fascinating, absorbing, and very informative book written with Young’s cooperation and blessing, and one that incorporates interviews with hundreds of Young’s friends, family, and colleagues as well as centering on many hours of interviews with Young himself. Long may he run! Enjoy.

Review “Shakey” is one of the finest biographies that I have read. Author Jimmy McDonough is a tireless researcher and an excellent writer, in tune with the times in which Neil Young, his subject, has lived through and, in some respects, helped to shape.

The book thankfully offers chronological balance between the various stages in Young’s life, from his youth in Winnipeg and rural Ontario, to his adolescence in North Toronto (in, as it happens, the very neighbourhood in which I experienced my adolescence), to his emigration to California. McDonough deserves credit for going to all of the places, both large and small, that Young inhabited, interviewing family members, neighbours and friends.

Another great aspect of the book is the material one learns about many other artists in and around Young’s life; not only are there great insights into the likely characters such as Crosby, Stills and Nash, but one also learns a good deal about Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and the numerous musicians, managers, producers and assorted hangers-on that Neil has attracted.

Embedded throughout each chapter are excerpts of a conversation between McDonough and Young. The author does a skillfull job of encouraging Young to look back on various events in his life, often getting Young to confess to mistakes and errors in judgment. The role of this conversation is two-fold: first, McDonough performs a precarious, intriguing balancing act of serving as Young’s dispassionate biographer, and as a friend in whom Young can feel comfortable confiding; second, the conversation reveals the full human side of Neil Young, warts and all, as he sees things today.

I’ve seen Neil Young in concert three times – with the Shocking Pinks in the 1980’s, and, so far in this decade, with Crazy Horse (Greendale) and as CSNY (Freedom of Speech). To me, Young and his work are as original and vital as ever, and this view is corroborated by many well-known artists quoted in “Shakey”.

To be sure, Young has had a bumpy road to travel, what with his parents splitting up when he was still living at home, his bouts with polio and epilepsy, and his challenges raising his two sons, both of whom are quite disabled. While Young has been, in many respects, a victim of the circumstances just described, he has been, either despite this or perhaps because of this, far from an angel himself: he has been a very tough, demanding guy to work with, to live with, or to just be around. Young has been described as a loner, mercurial, driven by his work to the point of distraction, inaccessible. Yet, as one of his cohorts has indicated, “magic things happen when you’re around Neil”.

“Shakey” does justice to the story of Neil Young, a versatile, brilliant, principled artist. While it is unfortunate that many in his midst have been hurt by his at times uncaring and insensitive ways, presumably they chose to have a relationship with him and, as such, were in a position to take the good with the bad.

For a Neil Young music fan, “Shakey” is an excellent resource. In addition, this book is also a valuable exposition of the spirit, mechanics and orientation of Young as an artist, someone intent on achieving specific end results. In other words, this book can be entertaining, informative and instructive; I certainly found it to be that way.

May 4, 2013 - Posted by | Book Shakey Neil Young's Biography by Jimmy McDonough | ,

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